Every reader has at least one book or series that can best be defined as a “guilty pleasure.” You don’t read it because everyone else did, or because it’s intellectually stimulating, or even because you might want to recommend it to others. You read it simply because you like it, it makes you laugh, and maybe gives you a cheap thrill.
However, every once in a while, a guilty pleasure can surprise you. It becomes something more than what it was in its origins, something deeper than what you thought it was capable of being. This was my experience with Adam Warren’s Empowered, a graphic novel series published through Dark Horse Comics.
One look at the cover and it’s pretty easy to guess why I might be a bit embarrassed to admit I read this, and to be honest the cover says a lot about the nature of the series. To give a short summary, Empowered is a parody of every major superhero theme out there. Filled with scantily clad, super curvaceous women, muscle-headed superheroes with exaggerated cod pieces, and dimwitted villains, Empowered is a book that will make you laugh out loud one moment and then become quietly embarrassed the next.
Headlining the series is a super heroine named “Empowered,” a woman whose powers stem from a suit that’s as fragile as her ego (which, trust me, could shatter from a faint breeze). Added to that is the fact that she apparently can’t wear anything underneath, which means that she is continually walking around in various states of near nudity, her modesty spared by a few shreds of fabric and some convenient censorship.
Another significant thing to know about this book is that the story and art style is heavily influenced by the Japanese manga style. Decked out in the classic black and white, the character all come with large, expressive eyes and almost caricature-like physical features. Other common manga tropes you’ll see in spades are sweat-drops, giant blush marks, windmill flailing of arms and legs during a fall, and the occasional panty flash (hilariously enough, the most common instance of this comes from a cross-dressing hero named the Maid Man).
However, beneath the superhero mockery and rampant fan service, I was surprised when I discovered an underlying complexity that was slowly uncovered with every successive volume. You get to see a world of people either high on their own power or psychologically damaged beyond recognition. This is a world where justice is just a buzz word, heroes place more stock in their public image than in their jobs, and the people with the purest, most noble intentions make the least difference. In many ways, it’s just as twisted a reflection of our world as it is of typical super hero comics.
At the center of all this is Empowered, a young woman who in many ways is closer to the ideal version of her peers, but is held back by the very thing that allowed her to become a hero in the first place. However, as the series has progressed, it becomes clear that Emp is much more than she appears, and much, much more than even she realizes…
With every new chapter of this epic, mysteries build, questions are posed, and characters that seemed so laughable at first are thrown into a much harsher contrast.
Warren has managed to keep the reader on the razor’s edge between comedy and drama, producing bizarre highs and heart-rending lows, and making you wonder about how you came to care about these strange men and women.
In what can be best described as the perfect marriage of American superhero comics and Japanese manga, Warren has shown how easily the twin masks of the creative arts can be switched out, and reminds you that a well-written parody is supposed to provoke thought as well as laughter.